Football has just one significant effect on real life: It makes people happier

9th June 2010 By: Denis Worrall

That's not original. It is the sub-heading to an article in the week-end Financial Times of 29 May by Simon Kuper. Kuper was reviewing several books on soccer and he begins his article like this: "It now seems normal for nations to obsess about the football World Cup. Yet when the English did so in 1990, somebody wrote that it `was unprecedented and unexpected'. Only quite recently have World Cups turned into occasions for countries to debate who they are. Those 11 young men in their team shirts have become the nation-made flesh, and the tournament the foremost contest for prestige among countries."

If this is true of other countries, it is particularly true of South Africa. We lost the 2006 Cup to Germany by one vote. And having been awarded the 2010 tournament there were all kinds of doubts about whether we would be ready for it, whether we had the capability to build the stadia, and bring on the infrastructure that is required. All that has happened.

The sale of tickets in South Africa has actually equalled the German World Cup at 97% capacity. According to Fifa's official ticket service provider there are a few hundred tickets left and the only games available are Portugal against North Korea and Cameroon against Netherlands. In other words, all the doubts have been removed.

But what is most important is that, for a young nation the event has had a profoundly positive effect in a curious sort of way. One senses that the excitement - and it is evident all over the country - has less to do with the expected performance of the South African national team itself than with the fact that - this biggest of sporting events with its enormous exposure - is taking place in this country. The latest Economist in a special feature on South Africa, captures a good part of the South African mood. But Barney Mthombothi, the savvy and politically courageous editor of South Africa's Financial Mail, is spot on when he writes: "South Africans, it seems, are at last falling in love with their flag. The staging of the soccer World Cup in two weeks' time has suddenly unleashed some sort of latent affection for the country - including the colours and symbols associated with it. It's as though we're not simply looking forward to a major sporting event. The occasion also affords us an opportunity to stare beyond our navels, deeper into our souls."

Some hard figures, courtesy of the most recent Financial Mail:

R33bn is the total amount national government has committed to World Cup-related infrastructure.

Over 130,000 jobs have been created in construction work on the ten world-class sports stadia, six of which were built from scratch.

R12,9bn is the cost of transport upgrading including the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transport System and the Gautrain.

R1.5bn was spent on telecoms and broadcasting.

R1.3bn on safety and security measures.

R0.82bn for public health and disaster management.

R3.5bn is has been spent on infrastructure at ports of entry.

10,000 volunteers are to be recruited for the event.

0.4% is the estimated impact of the event on the level of real GDP in 2010.

373,000 are the total number of visitors expected (this is down from a previously estimated 483,000).

The average length of stay of the overseas visitors will be 18.7 days (up from the previously estimated 14 days).

Average spend during the trip to South Africa R30,200 (which is up from the original estimate of R22,000).

Matches watched per foreigner - 5. In the case of Germany matches watched by foreigners - 2.6. 
[R1 = US$0.1284; R1 = €0.1077; R1 = £0.0893.]

As Iraj Abedien, one of South Africa's top economists, puts it: "Even if the World Cup goes wrong, it will still have been worth it. The marginal loss will be negligible relevant to the tangible benefits of improved road, rail, information technology and airport infrastructure." And Michael Spicer, the CE of Business Leadership, says: "The World Cup has undoubtedly been a unifying factor in South Africa. This does have economic consequences which though they aren't immediate, are nevertheless real."

What of the social and political comment? A German diplomat based in South Africa told me the other day - "German journalists will pick up on any untoward incident and event. That is their mind-set - so expect negatives." And Alec Russell in a comprehensive article in last week-end's Financial Times wrote that opinion writers will ask: "Will the tournament leave the country anything except a psychological hang-over and empty stadiums." He goes on: "That in the background will stand the cautionary image of neighbouring Zimbabwe, a once-prosperous state ruined by the regime of Robert Mugabe."

There is much about South Africa that will reinforce this negative image of the country's future. Russell in his article lists them. But then comments: "As such breathless observations circulate, commentators should stop and ask whether they are reporting on South Africa or making use of a trusty stereo-type that draws on decades of African failure to reinforce the idea that it is somehow inevitable that South Africa, too, will fail." He is absolutely correct.

Aside from the fact that South Africa is the economic engine of Africa; that it has the most diverse economy on the continent; that it has enormous assets; a strong agricultural economy; an exceptional infrastructure by African standards; and a strongly developed private sector - South Africa has flexible and resilient people who have adapted to very changed circumstances. And I am talking less about black South Africans than about white South Africans - and the Afrikaners in particular who had all the power but who have quickly adapted to a new role. With public service closed to them, and progress to the top of big corporations difficult, they have become South Africa's entrepreneurs. (A good example is the information technology sector in South Africa which is dominated by Afrikaners.) They have accepted the new South African flag; insofar as they have a political interest they vote Democratic Alliance; they enthusiasti cally support their rugby and cricket teams; they applaud the inclusion in the national rugby team of black and brown South Africans; and no doubt will be solidly behind Bafana Bafana in this World Cup.

Just as the 1995 Rugby World Cup symbolised not a united nation - but a nation growing in unity - so will the World Cup - whether Bafana Bafana makes it into the second or third round or not at all. It's the tournament that counts. And the fact that it is taking place in South Africa and will go off successfully - that is important to South Africans. In other words, it reflects a deep sense of national pride

Denis Worrall,

Omega Investment Research

Cape Town, South Africa